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Happy Now? Why the Auto Industry Should Have Stuck With MPG Letter Grades

You still flunked.
In two years, consumers will be able to see every car they might want to buy rated on a 1-10 scale for fuel economy and climate impact. That's the result of a fractious debate over revisions to a label that must appear on all passengers vehicles. Both the EPA and the Transportation Department said it was about time. The auto industry, meanwhile, grudgingly celebrated that they have avoided an elementary-school style letter-grad scale. Which was incredibly stupid.

You might drive a C, but would you drive a 3?
This is from a Bloomberg report on the change:

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members include General Motors Co. (GM) and Toyota Motor Corp., and the National Automobile Dealers Association praised the abandonment of letter grades, saying both the industry and consumers are better served by the change.

"It's good that they backed away from something where they made the decision about the relative value of the vehicle rather than consumers," Doug Greenhaus, chief regulatory counsel for the car-dealer group, said in an interview.

I can't really figure out what Greenhaus means. Relative value? The issue was that nobody wanted a D. But what's wrong with a C? Anyone buying a full-size pickup truck or SUV knows that they're not getting the same MPGs as a Prius. And Prius shopper know they're not getting a V8 engine and seating for seven.

Substituting deadly precision for happy vagueness
A letter-grade scheme, as long as the consumer understands it doesn't apply to the entire car, allows for a much more vague expression of fuel costs and planet-damage. Let's say that a Prius or Honda Insight gets an A. The Chevy Volt would probably also get an A, even though you could theoretically fill the tank once a year and forget about it, effectively reducing the fuel cost to zero. It should get, like, an A+++. Or an X or a Z or somesuch.

As you can see, a car that merely gets 60 mpg doesn't need to aspire to that standard to get the top mark.

However, if a Volt gets a 10 on a 1-10 scale, a Prius might get an 8. That's probably no big deal, but what about a Ford (F) F-150 pickup with a turbocharged V6, going up against a V8 Chevy Silverado? I reckon both would get a C in letter grades. But the turbo F-150 is likely to get something like a 5 or 6, while the Silverado scores a 4. Or a 3.

Can you see the problem now?
There's nothing to disrespect about a vehicle that goes for a "gentleman's C" and doesn't claim to hit it out of the park on MPGs. But to my mind, vehicle comparisons are likely to be more pernicious when you're comparing 4 and 7s. In fact, anything below a 5 could turn consumers off.

It's like when tests are handed back in school. If you get a C, nobody knows whether you pulled a 75 or a 79. But if you get a big fat 71, with a red circle around it, the whole class knows you just eked past a D.

Automakers should just give up on these battles
Anyone with a smartphone can find out the true MPGs and yearly fuel costs on any vehicles they want to buy while standing in the dealer's lot. Don't have an iPhone? Then you can call your friend/relative/advisor who does on the free cellphone you got with your wireless plan and ask them to look it up for you.

This information is already out there. Trying to spin it by fighting with the government over a piece of paper with glue on the back is borderline idiotic. Actually, it's worse than that. The carmakers spent money lobbying this thing. What a waste.

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Photo: EPA
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